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December 05, 2009

Sen. Max Baucus nominated girlfriend for U.S. Attorney post

Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus is defending his decision to recommend his girlfriend and former state office director Melodee Hanes for a job as a U.S. Attorney for Montana.

Baucus's main "defense" appears to be that he and Hanes were separated from their respective spouses when they started dating. That's touching, but it's hardly the point. The scandal here is an apparent conflict of interest, not infidelity.

It should be noted, however, that Hanes withdrew her application for the AUSA U.S. Attorney job when she decided to move in with Baucus. So, ultimately, she didn't end up benefiting unjustly from her connection to the senator.

However, as part of the selection process, Baucus submitted 6 names to an independent evaluator who picked the top 3 candidates to be interviewed by Baucus and Montana's other senator. Which means that some aspiring AUSA lost the opportunity to advance to the final round because Hanes was taking up a spot. Media reports don't say whether the independent evaluator knew that Hanes was Baucus's girlfriend.

The really objectionable part of this story is that Baucus was responsible for interviewing his girlfriend and making recommendations. If Hanes wanted to apply for the job, Baucus should have recused himself.

Hanes, a former county prosecutor, now works on juvenile justice issues at the Justice Department. She swears she got that job on her own with no help from Baucus. We'll see if those claim withstands scrutiny in the days ahead.

Props to Andrew Ramonas of Main Justice for breaking the story.


Conflict of interest, granted. But, is Hanes qualified for the job?

This is a major issue if she's patently unqualified for such a position. If she might have been a legitimate candidate for the position independent of her relationship to the Senator, then it's just a bit iffy.

I'm not excusing Baucus but the truth is that, just as one should not get a job because of a relationship, one should also not be excluded from a job for the same reason. If there will be an ongoing conflict once they have the job, that's something else entirely, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

An AUSA (assistant US attorney) is not a US attorney. The US attorney is the chief federal prosecutor for a district (in many cases, that means an entire state) and it's a political appointment, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. An AUSA is a line prosecutor - there are lots of them and it's a career civil service job. Hanes was interested in being US attorney. Senators don't "nominate" US attorneys, as some of your links suggest - the president does that - but there's a custom that the president takes recommendations of the senators of the state in question very seriously. A senator can recommend as many people as he wants, so Hanes didn't take up the spot of someone else - and anyway, the job usually goes to someone who is politically very well connected as well as being an experienced prosecutor.

This isn't to say that what Baucus did wasn't improper - it certainly seems improper to me. But in the end there was no harm done.

Fixed the AUSA thing, thanks.

Here's how Main Justice described the selection process: Baucus submitted 6 names to an independent evaluator who was told to pick the top candidates to advance to the interview stage. Three were eliminated and three advanced. Hanes was one of those who advanced. If the independent evaluator was tasked with picking the top three, then it follows that someone else would have advanced to the next round if Hanes wasn't in the running. It's possible that the evaluator could have named more than 3 people to advance, in which case Hanes moving forward didn't hurt anyone.

This conflict of interest problem seems to come up quite a few times with Senator Baucus,
Check this link regarding Liz Fowler and Michelle Easton.

This pattern of questionable behavior is too frequent. It is time Senator Baucus was replaced

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